TODAY'S PAPER

Trump's tweets about Manhattan terror suspect complicates option for death penalty

Sayfullo Saipov is accused of driving a pickup truck onto a bike path along the West Side Highway in lower Manhattan, resulting in eight deaths, on Tuesday, Oct. 31, 2017. Photo Credit: AFP / Getty Images / Don Emmert

Defense lawyers for accused bike-path terrorist Sayfullo Saipov asked a Manhattan federal judge on Thursday to prohibit the government from seeking the death penalty or to name an independent counsel to decide because of prejudicial tweets from President Donald Trump.

The motion cites Trump’s tweets calling for the death penalty immediately after Saipov’s Halloween attack last year that killed eight, and more recent tweets criticizing Attorney General Jeff Sessions and the political effect of his charging decisions in cases involving two Republican congressmen.

“The combined impact of the president’s statements make it impossible for Attorney General Sessions — who works for Mr. Trump — to discharge his statutory and constitutional obligation to exercise independent discretion in determining whether a capital prosecution is warranted,”  Saipov’s public defenders told U.S. District Judge Vincent Broderick.

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“Preclusion of a death sentence or the appointment of an independent prosecutor is necessary to protect Mr. Saipov’s constitutional and statutory right to a fair and non-arbitrary decision as to whether he should be exposed to the possibility of a death sentence,” they added.

Saipov, 30, of Paterson, New Jersey, a lawful permanent resident who came to the United States from Uzbekistan in 2010, drove a rented van on a West Side bike path last October, causing multiple injuries in addition to eight fatalities, and later said he was inspired by the Islamic State, authorities said.

“NYC terrorist was happy as he asked to hang ISIS flag in his hospital room,” Trump tweeted on Nov. 1, 2017. “He killed 8 people, badly injured 12. SHOULD GET DEATH PENALTY.” In later tweets, the defense lawyers said, Trump called Saipov a “degenerate animal” and said “Should move fast. DEATH PENALTY!”

The motion also cited Trump’s harsh criticisms of Sessions for failing to follow a political agenda on issues such as further investigating and prosecuting Hillary Clinton, and a tweet on Sept. 3 that faulted Sessions for recent charges against Republican congressmen Chris Collins and Duncan Hunter.

“Two long-running, Obama era investigations of two very popular Republican congressmen were brought to a well publicized charge, just ahead of the Mid-Terms, by the Jeff Sessions Justice Department,” the president said in that tweet. “Two easy wins now in doubt because there is not enough time. Good job Jeff…..”

The Justice Department has not yet announced whether it will seek the death penalty, but prosecutors said in June they would have a decision by September. A spokesman for Manhattan U.S. Attorney Geoffrey Berman declined to comment on the motion.

In addition to Trump’s tweets, Saipov defense lawyers David Patton, Mark Gombiner and Jennifer Brown cited statements by Trump lawyer Rudy Giuliani about the possibility of firing Sessions’ as further evidence of the attorney general’s vulnerability and lack of independence.

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They said federal law makes the “attorney for the government” responsible for deciding whether the circumstances of a case justify the death penalty, and the Justice Department has established an elaborate protocol for weighing both sides before deciding.

“The pressure from Mr. Trump’s intemperate demands are simply too great for Attorney General Sessions or anyone else who works for President Trump to appropriately exercise the fact-based, independent decision-making process required . . . ,” they told Broderick.

“A decision not to seek death would expose the decision-maker to a blaze of public scorn and ridicule as well as the possible loss of employment,” the motion argued. “That taint on the charging process cannot be tolerated.”